A river, an oak tree, a people, and exemplary resistance
The Lenca indigenous communities are resisting
attempts by Sinohydro, a Chinese construction company,
to build a dam on the Río Gualcarque, their sacred river.
For months they’ve held off economic, political and armed forces
from under an oak tree.
Now they’ll have to face the recently elected attorney general,
backed by the national associates of foreign entrepreneurs
engaged in mining and other major businesses
that are seriously affecting the communities.
Ismael Moreno, SJ
Families from the village of Rio Blanco and 10 other Lenca communities scattered through the rugged mountains in the northern part of the department of Intibucá in western Honduras, collectively known as the Rio Blanco communities, woke on April 1, 2013, under the shade of an oak tree.
Armed with machetes and sticks, the families from these 11 communities, later joined by other neighboring communities until they totaled 28, dug an enormous trench across the road that goes down to the Río Gualcarque, a river that symbolizes life for them and from which legends and traditions spring that evoke enchantment, promises and love.
From time immemorial these people were born, grew, worked and invoked their gods—and later their Christian God—accompanied by the murmur of the Río Gualcarque’s limpid, magical current. This river starts in the western mountains of the Puca or Palaca range, in the legendary indigenous community of Yamaranguila, then flows down through deep ravines to meet the Río Ulúa, uniting in a single current of life just like when two Lenca sweethearts marry. Once joined, they bathe the Sula valley before flowing into the Caribbean Sea in northern Honduras.
They never imaginedNone of those who decided to sit under the oak tree that April morning could have imagined that they would be there for several months. Nobody envisioned that news of their struggle would spread throughout the national territory and find an echo in communities and solidarity organizations in many countries of the world. Fewer still thought their names would be cursed in the Tegucigalpa and San Pedro Sula offices of high-ranking business executives and those who belong to the exclusive FICOHSA financial group: owners of banks, supermarkets, shopping malls, pharmacies, media, football teams, fast food chains, thermal power companies, gas stations, etc., not to mention most members of the National Congress, Supreme Court justices and leaders of the Liberal and National parties and even the leaders of some of the mega neo-Pentecostal churches and a top member of the Catholic Church hierarchy.
When they began the blockade at the foot of the tree, they didn’t know that one day the minister of the environment would say they weren’t from recognized Lenca communities and, echoing the words of the FICOHSA businessmen, were being manipulated by Bertha Cáceres, some unruly priest or other, not to mention misinformed NGO officials who get rich supporting those who make disturbances in Honduras.
The power of far-off ChinaNever could they have imagined that their communities’ names and the protest under the shade of an oak tree would get cursed in offices in China, home of Sinohydro, the world’s largest hydro-electric dam building company. With its government’s backing, Sinohydro, along with other companies, is accustomed to winning over governments and private enterprise in Latin America with hardly any opposition. It was even happening in Chavez’s Venezuela, where they’re involved in oil, agriculture and even housing.
Something similar seems to be happening in Nicaragua, where an individual Chinese entrepreneur has managed to get a concession to build an Inter-oceanic canal and another eight megaprojects with privileges that make Daniel Ortega’s government even more of a sell-out than that of President Manuel Bonilla, who gave US banana companies the best lands on Honduras’ northern coast over a century ago. The difference is that we can categorically classify Bonilla’s as an extreme rightwing government, while Daniel Ortega calls himself a leftist yet is selling Nicaragua out to a foreign businessman while shamelessly calling himself the heir to Sandino, the nationalist General of Free Men. But that’s another country’s affair… Let’s get back to Honduras and the Lenca communities.
The unexpected The Chinese businessmen and their Honduran allies did studies to analyze many of the problems that might disrupt their operations in such remote areas of our continent. What they didn’t reckon on is that their businesses would be dramatically boycotted by people they didn’t even think to inform let alone consult when designing and signing the contract with the Honduran government in conjunction with the FICOHSA group.
Nor did it occur to them that Juan Barahona—a grassroots leader skilled in union struggles, candidate for one of the three vice-presidencies of the Republic for the Liberty and Refoundation Party (a leftist coalition party), ever skeptical of struggles that don’t originate in unions or “political class” arenas—would pay tribute to the Lenca men and women in a public statement on August 14. By that time the communities had already completed 138 days of peaceful protest and resistance.
The communities’ initiativeUnder the oak tree and besides the trench dug in the road, the Lenca families set up their plastic sheeting, their bedframes and improvised hearths for cooking their corn and beans, celebrating life and sharing joys and fears. I found them there on May 1, my first visit. At that time, their struggle was being engaged in by only some isolated indigenous communities, backed by the Civic Council of Grassroots and Indigenous Organizations of Honduras (COPINH), which the indefatigable leader Bertha Cáceres has led since it was formed in 1994.
But it wasn’t COPINH or Bertha that began this struggle of peaceful resistance. The communities themselves took the initiative to station themselves under the oak tree and open the trench to prevent the dam’s construction. Several of the community leaders in COPINH informed it and asked for its solidarity. COPINH recognized the communities’ initiative as a worthy expression of grassroots indigenous struggles and took it on.
Who are under the oak tree?I saw many women, elderly people, young men and even very young girls among those gathered at the break in the road. When I asked them what they hoped to achieve, they said they are protecting their river and their assets from outside threats; they won’t allow anyone to steal the river that has given them life and been a source of their faith throughout their history. Their lives and their faith in God are in a close relationship with Nature, especially with their forests and rivers.
The leaders of these communities aren’t tall or white. Their names have never been heard on the radio or seen in the newspapers. They aren’t political leaders or people with academic degrees. If someone goes to the oak tree expecting to find a well-known leader or a woman with a history of struggle, they will be making a mistake. Under the shade of the oak tree all the faces look the same: male and female indigenous people marked by age-old hunger, their skin toughened by the sun or the heat of the fire hearth. None is distinguishable by his or her appearance. All the adults are the same height, all the children have the same ragged clothes; their feet bare and calloused. They all talk softly, in simple terms, their eyes downcast to the earth. They never stop talking but never raise their voices; their strong words and soft voices are in perfect harmony.
“We’re all in the same problem”Adelaida Sánchez is one of these voices. Why are you opposing the dam on the Río Gualcarque? Without looking up, and talking as if for the earth, she told me:“This hydroelectric dam isn’t development for us. They’re taking our wealth and leaving us without a river and with more hunger.” Adelaida is thin and small; she has four children and didn’t finish primary school. She and her soft voice came a few days later to the Jesuits’ San José Institute in El Progreso to share her experiences with the urban student body there. Adelaida told the students that that her family is very poor, she had had to work from a very early age and she believes in community struggle.
“My husband’s name is Martín Domínguez. He works the land planting corn, beans and other things to eat. Since we began taking over the road on April 1, we’re all involved in it. Being a woman doesn’t affect me being in the fight, because we’re all in the same problem. When my husband can’t be there, I can, and sometimes we both go. Sometimes he goes to work in the bush and I go to the blockade with my daughters. In addition to being there, we women make the food and the men bring in firewood and water. We cook whatever is there. If we only have bananas and beans, that’s what we all eat. Sometimes we have nothing, so we just endure.”
“These Indians... Under the oak tree, one mother told me that her daughter came hurrying home with her eyes red from crying and, almost without saying a word, sorted through everything for food and clothing.“The Lenca people need us, mama,” she told her mother,“and we have to share even if we can’t eat what we like for a few days.”
only by killing them!”
After listened to many of the people “entrenched” beneath the spreading oak, I was convinced of the words of a senior executive from one of the companies the Lenca communities were protesting against:“These Indians are different. If we don’t take extraordinary measures, they could spend their whole lives here. They aren’t like other Honduran people, who can be bought with money or threatened with the police and the army.” With that perceptive assessment, he then added, “The only way to get these Indians out of the way is to kill them.”
Clean energy in dirty hands?Lenca communities aren’t against using water and the rivers to produce energy that improves life. But they won’t allow their rivers and all their water to be used by outsiders without taking them into account or when they oppose it. They don’t accept being marginalized to the point where even their lives and traditions are put at risk.
One day technicians, machinery and men in hard hats with a lot of technological equipment just showed up and began to work on the Río Gualcarque. The community people had no idea where they came from or why they were there. None of the company’s officials or anyone from the government had even bothered to inform the communities that a hydroelectric dam was being built on “their” river, much less to ask them if they agreed.
The indigenous communities learned for themselves that the builders answer to companies that combine the capital of
a few national entrepreneurs with foreign capital, primarily from the People’s Republic of China. They learned that the national entrepreneurs are from the same nucleus that has used thermal energy projects, dirty energy, to amass large amounts of capital and damage the environment.
They also learned that the new investments for producing clean energy are in these same hands. The Lenca people don’t oppose moving from dirty to clean energy but the fact that both types of energy are in the dirty hands of dirty capital.
They had orders to fireThe communities’ strategy has proved very successful. They began on their own and at their own risk but didn’t stop there. After seeking out COPINH, their own organization, which represents them in their struggles and demands, it helped them reach out for the solidarity of other like-minded organizations and agencies, such as community media. That’s how they found me, since I work with Radio Progreso. They invited me to celebrate Mass on May 1. Later, on May 20, we called several organizations to a demonstration that would march from the oak tree to the construction company’s camp, a little over a mile away.
The road to the tree was filled with soldiers that day. They stopped us three times, searching every inch of our car and pointing machine guns at the passengers. Finally we arrived at the place where the Lenca communities were. Various organizations from Tegucigalpa, San Pedro Sula, from the Topulanes indigenous communities, Atlántida, El Progreso and Santa Bárbara participated in the activity. People came from church, feminist, trade union and indigenous organizations. There were also international observers. No one was armed. Our weapons were our voices and slogans. When we reached the camp we were met by dozens of soldiers, police and private guards, who formed a wall to defend the installations.
There’s only one road to the camp and it’s bordered by cliffs. There’s no way to escape. Ten minutes after we positioned ourselves in front of the camp we looked back and saw several convoys filled with soldiers and police. We were sandwiched between the two.
Because I was tired I stayed to the back of the demonstration, unintentionally near the operation’s chief. I thus heard when he received a call, to which he responded as follows:“Yes, major, the people are here but they aren’t armed. I don’t think there’s any need to continue with the plan.” Ten minutes later, another call:“Yes, major, tell me… No, I don’t think that’ll be necessary. They’re peaceful and they’ll be going back at any moment…Yes, I understand what you’re saying, but I don’t think there’ll be any need to go ahead with the plan because there’s no threat.” It was clear: they’d had orders to shoot. What could I do? I sat down on the grass and prayed that God would care for these communities defending life.
A woman who fits no mold The Chinese and their Honduran associates from FICOHSA refuse to accept that the initiative to defend the Río Gualcarque came from the Lenca communities and their leaders. Their investigations identified three COPINH leaders—Bertha Cáceres, Tomás Gómez and Aureliano Molina—so they targeted attacks on them, with the complicity of the Army and Police, the company’s private guards and also the Prosecutor’s Office and judges.
The main target is Bertha Cáceres. She symbolizes COPINH’s tenacious resistance and the strength and resilience of indigenous women. Bertha breaks all molds. She doesn’t fit the patriarchal mold: she shatters it. She doesn’t fit the mold of a traditional woman: she sends it to hell. She doesn’t fit the grassroots organization mold: she goes beyond COPINH’s own mold and that of feminist organizations. She doesn’t fit the political party mold: no one has been able to type-cast her. No matter who she’s talking to, she talks straight. She only becomes stronger when confronted by a traditional politician, a leader of the oligarchy or a military or police officer.
The Honduran and Chinese businessmen, in collusion with all the Honduran authorities, are convinced that the matter can be resolved by removing her from the scene. A mistake. In this case, the Lenca communities are more than Bertha. They started before her and would go on after her if necessary.
First hearing, first deathsIn the late afternoon of May 24, the military arrested Bertha Cáceres and accused her of carrying weapons. They took her to the jail in Santa Bárbara, capital of the departmental of the same name, in western Honduras. They also arrested Tomás Gómez. News of Bertha’s capture spread like wildfire and by dawn on the 25th the jailhouse was surrounded by people from all parts of the country. They had to release her but under the obligation of attending a hearing on June 13 for the crime of carrying weapons. She only spent one night in jail.
Hundreds of people accompanied Berta to the hearing. They had to give a provisional stay of proceedings. A few days later the Prosecutor’s Office returned to the case, restating the accusations. Meanwhile the oak tree was shaking with the call by the communities for another demonstration on July 15 with the same objective: to protest peacefully in front of the hydroelectric dam construction company’s camp.
Unlike on the May 20 demonstration, this time the soldiers shot at the Indigenous Council member and faith motivator, Tomás García. His son was wounded. And a few minutes later the body of another young man was found with a hole from a bullet of the type used by the construction company’s hired guns, according to data envío collected from local residents.
Surrounded by solidarityAfter this attack, the three COPINH leaders targeted by the entrepreneurs were summoned by the Prosecutor’s Office to a new hearing on August 14, the same day Juan Barahona decided to support the struggle of the Lenca communities publicly. The hearing would be in La Esperanza, capital of the department of Intibucá. The three were accused of crimes against goods and private property, acts of terrorism and disturbing the peace.
The hearing was impressive, not because of what happened inside the court so much as the massive presence of people from every part of the country and representatives from international solidarity, outstanding among them former Colombian Senator Piedad Córdoba, who travelled from her country to demonstrate her solidarity with COPINH, the three defendants and the Lenca communities in resistance.
The company’s attorneys demanded that the defendants be prohibited from leaving the country, making appearances in the Lenca communities or issuing public statements and that they be required to appear in the courtroom to sign an affidavit every 15 days. The judge had no choice but to rule those demands groundless as they were an attack on the defendants’ individual liberties, establishing only the obligation to sign in every 15 days.
They were summoned to a second hearing on September 12 in the same court. It is predicted that Bertha Cáceres and the two other leaders will be charged with homicide, presumably on the grounds that they instigated the Lenca communities’ uprising and are therefore responsible for the boy’s death. Since the entrepreneurs have identified her as the ringleader, they will seemingly stop at nothing to remove these three from the scene.
Lencas are deeply religiousThe Lenca communities are deeply religious. They trust that God will defend their lives from the threats of those who have power and bring proposals alien to their traditions and beliefs to their communities. The main leaders of this movement in defense of the rivers and nature are also promoters of the Christian communities that are part of the Catholic Church’s pastoral.
The people in the shade of the oak tree have very few belongings: just a rough-hewn bedframe, plastic sheeting, some blankets for the cold at night and utensils for cooking and eating. But they aren’t short of a guitar or songbook to liven up religious celebrations. Nothing makes them happier than the arrival of priests or religious workers who come to motivate and confirm their faith in the struggle they are engaged in to defend their river. This was my experience when I visited them for the first time. Nothing hurts them more than the criticisms and rejection they have received from some of the Catholic hierarchy.
In church for that MassI still remember the May 1 Mass, held in an anguishing heat that made the oak tree’s shade even more welcome. The Gospel passage they chose to read that day tells how Jesus, despite being known as the son of a carpenter, was rejected by his fellow countrymen in Nazareth for having spoken words of wisdom and performed miracles for society’s outcasts. Jesus then says that well-known phrase: A prophet is not without honor, except in his own country and in his own home.
The entire celebration was painstakingly prepared by the communities’ organizers. They improvised a table covered with a cloth that must have been white at some time. On it they placed a lit candle, a freshly-cut bunch of wild flowers, a glass of clean water and the Latin American version of the Bible. Beside the table was a man with his guitar, two women with the official parish hymnal and the delegate of the Word, ready to begin the Mass.
How unnecessary for that celebration were the official liturgy’s walls, bells, altars and gold. They were so unnecessary they weren’t even missed. Nobody gave them a thought. Nor did I remember I wasn’t in a church, because it was a church. Those communities were the church and the oak tree and the hot morning sun were the living temple of God. God couldn’t have been more incarnate than in that vibrant nature and in those voices and faces celebrating God’s blessing on the resistance struggle of a people who are defending their freedom in the midst of so many calamities.
There’s no division That morning I saw the border disappear between faith and life, between the religious world and the profane one, between prayer and action for justice. Those communities taught me that the defense of natural resources is an expression of faith in God and of belonging to the Church. All the debates about whether there is manipulation, whether the Church should or should not get involved in environmental issues or in human rights seemed irrelevant to me that morning.
between faith and life
Our reflection of faith was focused on encouraging the faith in God that makes his passage felt in the history of the humble of the Earth. One of the motivators put it this way:“God isn’t far from us, he’s here among us and we’re his people. We don’t have to go elsewhere to find him, he’s here in this oak tree. And the shade of the oak tree is his shade protecting us. He is in our songs and struggle through our strengths. No one more than God has opened up our eyes to defend our river from the outsiders. And in this struggle we feel his presence.”
We often look for salvation and saviors outside of our reality and expect the answers to our problems and needs to come from outside. It’s logical that the builders of the dam on the Río Gualcarque don’t believe in these communities and are convinced that people from outside have come in to stir them up. Jesus taught us that the dynamics of a savior are within us, inside ourselves. He invites us to believe in our strengths and tells us that the more we trust in our abilities the more we will feel the presence of God in our lives and our communities.
A patriotic act ofThe decision of these communities to station themselves on a road for days, weeks and months to defend their waters and all their natural assets is an example of dignity and sovereignty. The people won’t lose. They know that if they do nothing, if they only protest for a day, they will lose the river of their history and their legends. They know that once the machines begin their work, it will be even harder to turn them back and the communities will be pushed aside.
On August 9 the Chinese company’s machinery moved out but returned a few days later, on the opposite side of the oak tree where their work continued more discreetly. It was a strategy designed by Desarrollos Energéticos S.A. (DESA), a Honduran company created only five years ago that astonishingly bills itself on its web page as“a socially responsible company [that] has among its objectives to support communities in the area of influence of Agua-Zarca Hydroelectric Project.” In this case working together with FICOHSA and Sinohydro, the aim of the strategy is to prioritize the legal attack but move quietly forward with the work in a way that’s not so visible to arriving international observers...
The Lenca communities’ confrontation of all such power strategies is an example that has begun to extend to other, similarly threatened, communities in other parts of the country. What these communities have done in one particular point of the country is a patriotic act of national dimensions, symbolic of the defense of both local and national life.
Tolupans came A small group of Tolupan or Xicaque indigenous people was with us the day we celebrated Mass. They came from the mountains in the department of Yoro, in northeastern Honduras,“to scout out” how the Lenca communities are defending their natural assets.
to learn from the Lencas
They opened their eyes and listened very carefully to the testimonies of both men and women. They needed to know, to learn, because the Yoro communities are also being threatened by the presence of Canadian mining companies that came several years ago and offered a health center and a school. The Tolupanes rejoiced because they thought they were dealing with people of good will.
The joy didn’t last long. The mining company began tearing down the mountains and using cyanide to extract the antimony, gold, silver and iron oxide the Tolupans’ hills are filled with.
For many years the Tolupan people have been suffering not only from an invasion by the mining company, but also by ladino landowners and loggers who have destroyed their pine forests and evicted several indigenous communities to take over lands the communities got title to in the 19th century thanks to strong support from a Spanish priest named Manuel de Jesús Subirana.
A heritage snatched from themSubirana came to the Honduran Mosquitia, which borders on Nicaragua, in 1857 and the bishop of Comayagua entrusted him with evangelizing the Tolupan or Xicaque communities.
The missionary priest went up and down roadless mountains on mule and on foot. Within a few years he had visited all the indigenous communities and decided to combine evangelism with the struggle for legal protection of their lands. In less than five years he achieved his goal: between 1858 and 1864, the year of his death, the priest had baptized at least 9,000 Tolupans, and with the baptismal water gave them back their dignity as human beings and rightful owners of the lands they inhabited.
Through a staunch defender of their rights, especially of their lands, Manuel de Jesús Subirana is venerated by the Tolupans as the“holy missionary.” This heritage is now being snatched away by the ladinos loggers, miners, landowners, politicians and freeloaders.
The struggle is also against miningThe Lenca communities’ resistance struggle in defense of the Río Gualcarque aroused the strength that certain sectors of the Tolupans in the Locopama Mountains had already been pushing for. And one July day they too decided to take over the road to prevent the miners from continuing their depredations.
On August 25, three Tolupans who were positioned on the road were murdered in a fierce attack from sectors that saw the indigenous struggle as a threat to their interests. One of the dead was among those who had listened so carefully to the testimony the Lenca had shared in the celebration of Mass on May 1.
The example of the Lenca communities has also resonated in the struggle of peasant communities in the area of the
Río Leán valley and mountains in the department of Atlántida, in northern Honduras. The months of June, July and August were especially hot in these rural communities, especially in Nueva Esperanza, in the municipality of Florida.
Lenir Pérez, son-in-law of the magnate Miguel Facussé, decided to start mining for iron oxide, bucking heavy grassroots and community protest. He bribed several peasants and armed them against their own people, and threatened grassroots leaders. On July 25, his henchmen captured and evicted two foreign representatives of the Honduras Accompaniment Project (PROAH), one from France and one from Switzerland. He has formed armed groups not just to intimidate those who oppose him but also to terrorize the population and remove any obstacle to his mining plans.
The future is at stakeMany people don’t believe in these communities’ nonviolent struggle because the people are humble, indigenous and poor. We’re used to being moved by leaders and by the words of professional people and groups with a well-organized argument. Who could believe that something so good could come out of Lenca communities, so remote from the cities? But a lot of good has come out. Much hope has sprung from these humble people of the land and the Lenca communities’ action has opened an opportunity to wake up and understand that our future is also at stake in Intibucá.
Ismael Moreno, SJ, is the envío correspondent in Honduras.